Introduction To The Anjani Chronicles
Anjani is the exquisite, exotically featured singer and keyboardist best known for her Blue Alert CD, a collection of elegantly performed songs suffused with evocative lyrics, and her professional and romantic relationships with Leonard Cohen, an accomplished singer-songwriter in his own right. My own connection to Anjani began in July 2006 when I posted Music Recommendation That Will Make You Want To Kiss Me, a review of Blue Alert that reflected my captivation with the music. An online flirtation and email relationship between us ensued.
The Anjani Chronicles are a sequence of posts based on the content of my recent interviews with Anjani.
Anjani Does Waikiki, Boston, and The Slough Of Despond
Today’s post, the second of this series, begins at the point The Anjani Chronicles – Growing Up Anjani ended, Anjani’s return to Hawaii after performing for six months in Calgary and Edmonton as a member of Kino & The Sands and extends through her early professional career as a keyboardist and singer in the hotel lounges in Waikiki and a student of music in Boston.
That’s Entertainment: An Introductory Parable
The third best restaurant in the Northern Illinois large village-small town where we live offered, until it closed last year, live entertainment.
Local bands appeared with some regularity on the designated stage, a corner of the dining area otherwise occupied by a table for four. Occasionally, a not quite washed-up nationally known band – with two hits and three original members in the 60s – would swing through town on their last desperate tour of Midwestern clubs before taking their place on the county fair/local amusement park/discount store opening circuit.
But on a surprisingly large number of nights, the marquee displayed the name of one or another female vocalist, who not only possessed great pipes, a well chosen set list, and an altogether pleasing aspect but also had issued a favorably reviewed CD or two and had made some significant appearances on TV the concert stage.
On the nights I attended, there were rarely over 40-50 of diners in attendance. Typically, there was no cover charge or drink minimum and a couple could chow down on a house salad, appetizer, entrée, and cocktail for $50-60.
While I admittedly know little about the restaurant or music business, if these industry sectors are restricted to the same mathematics and basic buy low – sell high economic system we civilians use, then it requires only fifth grade arithmetic to determine that this situation, which persisted for many years, required one or more of the following conditions:
- Feeding starving musicians was the restaurant owner’s personal philanthropic mission
- The singer and the band split the $37 net profit the restaurant made from their performance
- All the performers booked were independently wealthy individuals who were had no interest in or need for money but got off on the glamor of playing Proud Mary for 50 parka-clad patrons trying to decide whether to order the breaded pork chops or the mahimahi
- The restaurant was a CIA front and the music acts harbored federal agents brought in, using the gigs as cover, to perform covert activities beyond the scope of the local talent
This parable offers two points pertinent to Anjani.
First, talent, even when abetted by beauty, does not guarantee success or even survival as a professional musician. There are battalions of competitors, the reasons for a performer’s popularity are uncertain (except, sometimes, in retrospect), and success today does not always lead to success tomorrow.
Second, I believe I now know, as I’ve long wondered, what could sustain the dedication and spirit of these musicians who travel through our local venues in their quest for stardom. I think each of them has a mantra, a devotional phrase to which they can turn for succor and reaffirmation when it all seems futile.
And that guiding light is
Well, at least I’m not a 16 year old Hawaiian girl dragging a 150 pound Fender Rhodes Stage 88 all over freakin’ Calgary and Edmonton.
You Can Go Home Again – To Play A Few Gigs
After the six months of performing in Canada, Anjani returned to Hawaii and was soon back to work.
I got a gig as second keyboardist along with my piano teacher, Clyde Pound. He’s an awesome jazz pianist in the vein of Bill Evans and he was a major influence in my musical education. We backed up a duo in their lounge act. They were great singers and it was one of the hippest shows in Waikiki at the time.
While Anjani relates this in a matter of fact manner, being “one of the hippest shows in Waikiki at the time” was no small accomplishment. The consensus is, in fact, that jazz enjoyed a Golden Era in the lounges of Waikiki during the 1970s. This excerpt from an interview with Clyde Pound himself is representative:
Pound, who first came to Hawaii in 1970 recalled that “back in the day, tours would pack the showrooms, along with Don Ho and Dick Jensen, and then there would be late-night, after-work jam sessions at places like Blue Velvet all along Waikiki.” That era ended, however, in the early ’80s. “There were three things that led to the steady downfall of live music in Waikiki,” Jones explained. “One, the United Airlines strike in 1980; two, the popularity of disco; and, three, the Gulf War.”
Anjani understood, however, that the Hawaiian jazz scene, however enjoyable and profitable, was not the environment in which she could realize her potential.
This was not the first nor would it prove the last such recognition that a location, a technique, or even an entire musical genre must be abandoned if she were to reach her goal.
When I questioned Anjani about the point at which she first said to herself, “X music isn’t the best I can do. I must try doing Y music instead – no matter how much I like doing X music,” she responded that these were “gradual realizations” rather than a abruptly revealed epiphanies, going on to elaborate,
In the old days every kid started off learning the piano through the foundation of classical music. I found two piano teachers in Hawaii, who helped me move from that to pop/jazz. I had less natural feeling for classical than the music my parents were into: Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, Henry Mancini, Sergio Mendez & Brazil 66. And we all grew up on Ed Sullivan’s artists, The Smothers Brothers, and movie musicals. My brother Steve, is eight years older than I am and he turned me on to great music … he can name every relevant song from the 50’s to now. His son is 11 and has the same eclectic taste as his father.
Which brings us to …
Standard Interview Question #17: “Who are the singers who influenced you?”
An incomplete list of responses to that query from previous interviews would include Henry Mancini, Frank Sinatra, James Taylor, Carole King, Shirley Horn, Stevie Wonder, Minnie Ripperton, Barry Kim, and Chick Corea as well as others, such as Loyal Garner and Teddy and Nanci Tanaka, who were best known in Hawaii.
In addition, others propose models for her. An article by Mark Marymont in The News-Press of Fort Myers, Florida (May 30, 2007) postulated that Anjani “has clearly listened to a lot of Nina Simone.”
Of course, that sardonic response is mine and not Anjani’s. In answering a query on her message board about that newspaper story’s suggestion that Simone was a model for her, Anjani wrote
Truth is, I stopped listening to music maybe ten years ago, except for what friends send me. … Although I grew up in Hawaii, a lot of musicians toured there (and back then radio and Rolling Stone were valuable/varied resources for discovering new sounds) but I never got exposed to Nina Simone till last April when Sony sent me her back catalogue. She is a fine singer with a miraculous instrument. I grew up playing viola, guitar, ukulele, & piano before finally settling on the latter in Jr. high school. So I actually listened to as much Beethoven as I did rock, jazz, R&B, funk, Hawaiian and folk music. In high school, my voice teacher really thought I’d become a mezzo soprano –I LOVED singing arias by Mozart. But the road led elsewhere. I don’t hear the similarity in our voices very much but I’m flattered by the compliment. I’d have to say that my favorite female artist is Shirley Horn; she puts me in a meditative world that I love to be in.
Segue Alert: Musical Influences Yield To Personality Traits
Anjani’s response is revealing and worth a moment’s reflection. She straightforwardly declares that she wasn’t influenced by Nina Simone, pointing out she wasn’t exposed to that singer’s work until recently, but then goes on to praise Ms Simone’s voice and note that she is flattered by the comparison. Not satisfied with preemptively assuaging any injury her comments might have caused to the originator of the comparison, Nina Simone, or anyone sympathetic to either, Anjani elaborates on her musical training from childhood to high school and then offer, as a lagniappe, the information that Shirley Horn is her favorite female singer.
Moreover, this response is an answer to what is, in fact, for Anjani, an irrelevant issue. It is much like “When did you decide you wanted to be a professional musician?” to which she simply answers, “I don’t recall a time when I didn’t want to be a musician.” Similarly, she has explained – repeatedly – that she does not emulate a particular singer or style.
If the issue of musical influences is irrelevant, why does Anjani not only answer such questions time and time again but, indeed, answer them more extensively than necessary? Her attitude reminds me of an interview I once watched in which a local newscaster asked a chef why his restaurant prepared a flaming dessert at table-side instead of heating it over a stove in the kitchen, a far more efficient method. The chef’s comment was, “Customers like it, and it doesn’t hurt the food much.”
Anjani politely, helpfully supplies an answer to irrelevant questions because interviewers and fans like it and coming up with answers doesn’t do much harm.
Nor is this professional politesse or the pandering of a performer to her audience. Consider this example of parallel behavior. Inquiring about a completely different matter, I asked Anjani if, during her adolescence, she had ever officially been in trouble (e.g., suspended from school or picked up by the police). She replied
God, no. I was pretty smart about not getting caught doing the dumb things I did, like smoking pot in Jr. High and sneaking out to go nightclubbing in high school. I never wanted to upset my folks … my motto has always been “Peace at any cost.” [emphasis mine]
While Anjani offered that declaration as a mirthful hyperbole, it does accurately reflect a behavioral pattern that exerts a powerful force on the way she operates in relationships, especially if conflicts arise, and to get her needs met in general.
Her predilection for “working things out” (her phrase) or, failing that, appeasement becomes exponentially more significant in the context of Anjani’s zealous pursuit, throughout most of her life, of “making it” as a musician. While the simplistic nice guys finish last cliché is not universally valid, it does seem patently clear that striving for success in a hyper-competitive field is a far more complex, circuitous, and difficult task for those, like Anjani, determined to make others, if not content and happy, then at least free of discord – even if that means sacrificing themselves – than for those able to tolerate unresolved conflicts or outright confrontations with others.
Finally, one notes that this concept of “making it” as a musician, particularly as a jazz musician, is an especially ambiguous as well as ambitious goal. How large an audience, how many album sales, how many positive reviews, … would be sufficient for Anjani to account herself successful? Unsurprisingly, objective criteria were never part of the her quest. Instead, she was pursuing a will-o’-the-wisp.
Let’s recap: from childhood, Anjani dedicated herself to pursuing an exceedingly difficult goal that was as amorphous as it was important. Further, winning this prize required her to compete, directly and indirectly, with a seemingly never-ending stream of other talented, dedicated performers. Oh, it was also essential that she induce, at a minimum, cordiality between herself and every other person.
Nothing to it.
This is a theme we’ll see again.
Now, however, we’ll return to Waikiki just long enough to say aloha because Anjani’s next stop en route to her ultimate musical destination is Boston’s Berklee College of Music.
In 1980, Anjani became a student at the Berklee College of Music.
Were this a typical article or biographical sketch about Anjani, the preceding sentence would constitute the complete coverage of this period of her life. The writeup at AllMusic.com is representative: “… she attended Berklee College of Music in Boston before moving to New York City.” The M&C site nicely adds the modifier “prestigious,” making it “… [Anjani] trained in guitar, piano and voice before attending Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music.” And, MTV mistakenly alters the story, making her a graduate of Berklee. But for the most part, the official online and print versions of Anjani’s life are limited to the notation that she studied jazz at Berklee for a year.
Such brief references may reflect the brevity of her one year stint at Berklee, but I suspect it has also been given short shrift because it doesn’t fit the templates for the standard “Prelude To Stardom” stories, an idea to which I’ll return after raising a few points.
It may be tempting to view Anjani’s decision to attend Berklee as routine if not trivial. Young adults, after all, frequently attend school even before finalizing their career choices, and professionals often complete a specific educational program, even if they are not required to do so.
Enrolling at Berklee was, however, a decided shift in the direction Anjani’s musical career had taken to that point. While she had received training in music since childhood, her own accounts indicate that she had become increasingly dedicated to performing professionally since high school when she had spent nearly every weekend playing in a band at parties, dances, hotels, and reunions. Then, late in her final year of high school, she had traveled to Canada to take a position in a Polynesian music revue, returning to Hawaii after six months to perform in jazz groups playing the hotel lounges in Waikiki. During her time in Boston, however, she played only “one or two” gigs because, she explains simply, “I came to study.”
It is also helpful, especially for those of us unfamiliar with the institution, to keep in mind that Berklee is not the kind of school one casually selects or one attends to while away a year or two languidly strumming on a guitar and finding oneself. This is a place that takes music seriously. According to Wikipedia,
Berklee College of Music, founded in 1945, is an independent music college in Boston, Massachusetts, with many prominent faculty, staff, alumni, and visiting artists. It has an enrollment of approximately 3,900 students and a 2004 faculty of approximately 430. Berklee offers a fully accredited four-year baccalaureate degree or diploma. … Berklee offers three full time semesters per year: Fall, Spring, and Summer. … There are 230 acoustic pianos and more than 1,000 guitar principals at Berklee. The average class size is 11. The holdings of the college’s Stan Getz Media Center and Library include more than 20,000 recordings, 20,000 books, 17,000 musical scores, and 6,000 lead sheets. … Majors [are offered in] Composition, Contemporary Writing & Production, Film Scoring, Jazz Composition, Music Business/Management, Music Education, Music Production & Engineering, Music Synthesis, Music Therapy, Performance, Professional Music, Songwriting.
Anjani, in response to my request that she characterize the school, described a student population divided into two distinct camps, Jazzers and Rockers, each with its own priorities and preferences. On beginning classes, she discovered that a number of students had so much advanced training prior to admission that they constituted an elite that “sucked up the oxygen from the rest of us.”
Berklee and jazz appear to be virtually inseparable constructs to Anjani. One of her few references to Berklee than as part of her biography is this comment from a discussion of her first album: “… I had a touch of Berklee Syndrome, known as the irresistible urge to drop jazz riffs in all the spaces.”
And, it was at Berklee that she recognized “that my jazz piano chops weren’t anywhere near virtuoso level … so I turned to singing and accompanying myself instead.”
She also made another discovery in Boston:
[Anjani’s] performance on the [Blue Alert] album is accordingly natural and unlaboured – a strategy she embraced when she saw the other side as a student at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. “I quickly discovered that I did not have the wherewithal to sit in a practice room for four, six, eight hours a day. This is not in my nature – and it has, unfortunately, continued to the present day. “I’m notoriously uninspired when it comes to practising,” she said. “But give me a deadline and, two days before, I’ll sit down and work my butt off.”
After a year in Boston, she received what was was to be her most important grade from Berklee.
But at the end of the semester my voice prof offered me some of her gigs and I thought, “If I’m good enough to do that, maybe I’m done with this place.” It was easy to leave Boston even though I liked the school. Coming from Hawaii it was shockingly cold, and I felt very alone there.
And, following an already familiar pattern that would persist through the future, Anjani returned to Hawaii to earn money playing at the now familiar venues.
My contention, to which I alluded earlier, is that the events of Anjani’s life during that year in Boston are rarely elaborated in the articles about her because they are not the stuff of which dreams or dramas are made. There are no life-changing triumphs to celebrate nor are their momentous catastrophes that others can easily recognize and empathetically appreciate.
Instead, the narrative, set against a bleak, lonely background, revolves around an onslaught of internal challenges to Anjani’s self-image, which was then personally as well as professionally dependent on her expertise as a specific type of jazz musician. Her decision to change from a jazz pianist to “singing and accompanying myself” consequent to her realization “that my jazz piano chops weren’t anywhere near virtuoso level” may appear no more than a common sense response but that interpretation belies the profound significance of her music as her identity.
That is not the kind of story that moves People and Us magazines off the newsstand
The Slough of Despond
This chapter of The Anjani Chronicles covers one more aspect of Anjani’s journey, but this passage is through a psychological rather than a geographical landscape.
Map of Christian’s Journey in Pilgrim’s Progress (Click on graphic to view larger image)
Anjani has made no secret of her depression, which began at age 13 and persisted over the next 20 years. While it’s easy enough to list the symptoms, prognosis, and secondary effects of depression, I have found the Slough of Despond, a bog in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, an apt metaphor for conveying the consequences of that syndrome and an especially useful tool for combating the tendency of contemporary culture to romanticize depression, much as an earlier generation considered tuberculosis a sign of tragic sensitivity and soulfulness.
Probably every psychiatrist who prescribes antidepressants has heard a variation of the question, “What if Prozac had cured van Gogh/Sylvia Plath/depressed artist of choice,” putting voice to the fantasy that artists are more vulnerable to despair than the rest of us, that the depressed are granted deeper and more authentic insights than the euthymic population, and that many paintings, poems, and songs would never have been produced if the artists responsible for them had not been depressed.
While disproving that thesis is impossible, I know that I’ve never seen, heard of, or read about a patient, artist or otherwise, who, after the depression lifted, complained of lessened productivity or inspiration. Certainly, none ever expressed the wish to suffer through another episode of depression for the sake of his or her art.
Consider this description of the Slough of Despond from Pilgrim’s Progress:
… they drew near to a very miry slough that was in the midst of the plain; and they being heedless, did both fall suddenly into the bog. The name of the slough was “Despond.” Here, therefore, they wallowed for a time, being grievously bedaubed with the dirt; and Christian, because of the burden that was on his back, began to sink in the mire.
Being mired in sludge, bereft of the hope, is a description that resonates with those provided by the depressed. Even simple tasks become cumbersome, overwhelming labors. Relationships are emotionally costly rather than gratifying. Fatigue, confused thinking, irritability, impaired self-esteem, and recurrent thoughts of death complete the picture.
Anjani’s own assessment of this period follows:
“Youth was a terrible time for me,” she says now. “I had a chemical whatever in my brain that simply wouldn’t allow me to be happy. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that I was in a completely foul mood, forever irritable.”
Factoring in the depression with the other psychological elements already mentioned, one cannot help but be struck by the transformation of Anjani’s story, which initially seemed a straightforward, heartwarming adventure of a beautiful, talented girl determined to become a star into a notably darker, more complex tale that is ultimately about resilience and courage.
To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. To not dare is to lose oneself.